Downtown Digs: MSU students unearth archeological artifacts in Virginia City

This summer, eight students participated in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s three-week Archeological Field School in Virginia City, Mont. The students’ discoveries included tools, toys and building foundations.

While learning professional archaeological field techniques, the students’ experiences helped improve scholarly understanding of the region’s history, provided a service to the Montana Heritage Commission and offered valuable education opportunities to Montana’s teachers and the public.

The excavation site on Jackson Street, just blocks off Main St., was once along a popular travel route for miners during the gold boom in the 1860s. The site, called Block 193, is now an empty lot. “We don’t know a whole lot except for photos. There are no standing structures left,” said Professor of Anthropology, Nancy Mahoney, who led the field school.

The student excavations focused on an old stone foundation, believed to be that of a bank or restaurant. There they found a dump site — a “gold mine for archaeologists” explained Mahoney.

Students found an ivory handle, the inscription of which indicated origins in the Congo and France. They also found toy guns, marbles and a studded shoe sole that may have belonged to a fighter in Virginia City’s legendary bare-knuckle boxing scene.

“It’s absolutely thrilling to be there among all of this. One is literally knee-deep in history,” wrote one student on the Extreme History Blog, a platform students used to share their stories. These finds and others contribute into forming a more complete picture of the city that used to be Montana’s capital.

The site’s downtown location provided unique opportunities for outreach and public engagement. “Doing archaeology right in the middle of town, with very interested locals and very interested tourists…makes it so much more of a meaningful experience,” said Mahoney.

The students set up an information tent and answered the public’s questions. “My favorite part of the Virginia City field school so far is our artifact exhibit and the public archaeology…tourists and locals alike have constantly been a refreshing and interesting source of information and personal stories,” wrote Bekah Shields on the Extreme History Project Blog.

Under the oversight of the Montana Heritage Commission staff archaeologist Scott Carpenter, a Professor of archaeology at MSU, the field school was responsible for gathering information for an official archeological survey. The lot is state owned, and there is interest in selling the property. “The state can’t sell the land without an archaeological assessment, so the field school came in to do one,” Mahoney said.

Also working at the Jackson Street dig were elementary school teachers from Montana, participating in Project Archaeology. A joint project between MSU and the Bureau of Land Management, the program provides research education, certification, and support for educators in the state.

The work on Block 193 is not done. Carpenter is responsible for analyzing the information gathered by the students, and synthesizing the data into a report for the state.

In the meantime, Mahoney and her students have more questions than when they started —  the stone foundation the group uncovered still holds mysteries. “How was it used? When was it abandoned? What happened after the boom in the 1860s?” Mahoney asked.

The department has tentative hopes to return to Virginia City to finish the work started by holding the field school again in 2015, but that remains to be determined.